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How a state takeover of a New Jersey school district worked out

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ROCHESTER, N.Y. (WROC) — Years of back-and-forth between the Rochester City School District and New York state have all led up to this — a possible state takeover.

Mayor Lovely Warren called for it to be voted on this November, and if passed, the state will have to also pass legislation, but Rochester is not the only city dealing with this. A few schools just a couple states away have been going through it for years.

News 8 wanted to show you what we could be facing here locally if this goes through, so we went down to Camden, New Jersey to learn more.

From those who have seen it

The Camden City School District has been under state control since 2013. Samantha Price, senior counsel for the district, said the process to be taken over by the state doesn’t happen overnight.

“We have this law called QSAC, it’s the Quality Single Accountability Continuum and it ranks every school district in New Jersey based on five different levels of performance. If a school district ranks below 50 percent in one or all five categories, then the state can consider filing an application to take them over,” Price said.

Onome Pela-Emore is the chief operating officer of the district. She said the district’s schools had been struggling for years before the state took over — graduation rates were at 10 percent in 2011. Student proficiency on state exams was at less than 1 percent. There were 13 superintendents in 20 years and 25 of the 27 schools in the district were in the bottom 3 percent of the state.

Pela-Emore said if the state hadn’t taken over, the district couldn’t have survived.

“I do think there is a world where state takeover is necessary, particularly if a district is not making progress, it’s not living up to the promises and the services it says it’s going to provide to its citizens and its children. So I do think at that point, yes, it’s necessary to ensure that there are parameters in place to ensure those things happen. But if and when state takeover is taken away and or doesn’t happen as a result I do think it is a disservice, particularly to the kids,” said Pela-Emore.

So what does a state takeover look like in New Jersey? The state picks a new superintendent and the school board is stripped of its voting rights.

Different state, different laws

It’s important to keep in mind that New Jersey’s law is different than New York’s when it comes to state takeover. If a state takeover happens here in Rochester, the state will choose a new school board. The superintendent isn’t automatically removed like it was in Camden.

Pela-Emore said teachers and students don’t see any difference in the classrooms.

“I think what changes day-to-day is how, from a district perspective, how we manage our finances, how we recruit our teachers, how we decide what we’re going to do long term,” she said.

Getting the parents of the Camden district to accept the takeover wasn’t easy. Felisha Reyes-Morton was a board member until last year. She said part of the problem with the disconnect was misinformation.

“A parent would be excited for their child getting honor roll — A’s and B’s or all A’s — not realizing that your child received all A’s in a school that’s less than one percent proficiency,” she said. “Being able to educate your community on where we are today versus where we need to be is something that struck families. Once you gave them that information, once you gave them those statistics and pointed them towards a source that they could feel comfortable was valid, you could easily see them waving a white flag and saying, ‘that’s horrible.'”

Coming to grips

For many parents and community members, this was a hard realization to come to.

“There was a cultural dynamic that we were up against, there was a systematic challenge that we were up against. When you talk about the most violent city in the U.S. and the poorest city in the U.S., there are some educational challenges that we had also,” said Reyes-Morton.

“When you’re a school board member in a leadership position and you have children of your own in the system, and you’re raising a family, and you know your neighbors so well and the hard work they do to make sure they’re providing quality of life for their families, and you come to those realizations, it’s just so surreal,” she said.

Does it work?

Reyes-Morton said over the past six years of the takeover, Camden has made some progress.

“Once you begin to hold systems and people accountable, it kind of awakens people that they’re being watched and measured and I really think that’s important even as that relates to school safety, and bullying, and the culture of the school,” she said.

Graduation rates are now at 60 percent, compared to the previous 10 percent. Dropout rates are down and attendance is up. Teachers are now being held accountable.

Pela-Emore said this is a good start, but there’s still more work to do.

“When we have a school of 300 students and only 6 percent are proficient, but that was 6 percent higher than it was in the prior year or in the year before state takeover, that is progress, but it’s still a long way to go before we can say we’ve done something,” she said.

Other New Jersey districts, Jersey City, Patterson, and Newark were under state control for decades. Price said seeing what those districts went through is driving Camden to do better.

“I think both for the state and for the city, we can see that those other districts, when they were left under state control for 20 plus years, the community got frustrated with how long and thought they could do a better job and that the state wasn’t really making as big of an impact,” said Price.

She also said the part of the takeover that may sound scariest to people actually helped Camden regain its footing.

“It’s hard to enact long term change when you are constantly turning over leadership at the top, so having a state-appointed superintendent really created that consistency,” Price said.

What’s next?

Pela-Emore has one main hope for her district and the children.

“Camden becomes a district that is competitive just like any other district in Jersey. Just the fact that we’re not competitive right now hurts my heart because it means that we are not providing the children of Camden with the services they truly deserve. It means we’re not providing them with the academic rigor that they can actually participate in,” she said.

Pela-Emore said she identified with the people of Rochester, who will be facing a big decision in November.

“It wasn’t a difference they saw like, ‘Oh my gosh the state took over and now our hands are tied.’ I think it depends, what is the reason why the mayor is saying this, that will be the catalyst for what will change day-to-day,” she said.

To those leading the charge, she said to be transparent about why you’re doing this.

“I think change is always hard for people. For anyone. I think change is absolutely necessary,” she said. “Is it gonna feel uncomfortable? Absolutely, I think for the superintendent, the board, the staff in the central office, the principals, its gonna feel uncomfortable for everyone.”

The return to local control is everyone’s end goal, but not until the schools are stabilized.

“Do I believe continuing under state intervention is the right thing to do to get us to a place where the district actually can be ready and the city can be ready to be back to local control? Yeah, I think we need a little more time,” said Pela-Emore. “I would say to the community, trust in the process, advocate that you want to be part of the process but trust in the process. And given this will be the first time for the state this is an opportunity to learn together and make change together.”

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